Some Observations on Roman Chariot-Racing

© Peter Donnelly

Revised December 19, 2015

I welcome comments. Please mail peter at this domain.



The chariots

The sparsores

The riders

Tools on the track

Charioteers and the law

The Reds and the Whites

The capacity of the Circus Maximus

Claques in the circus?

Appendix: Sidonius’s account of a race




Despite the prominence of chariot-racing in the popular view of Roman life (and indeed in Roman life itself), the literature in English remains scanty.[1] There are two essential scholarly works. Alan Cameron’s Circus Factions (1976), though it does not deal with the physical aspects of the sport, is important for understanding the context. For how races were actually conducted, we must turn to J.H. Humphrey’s Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing, a large, beautifully illustrated volume that marshals all the evidence available to the author in 1986. In the following essay, references to numbered figures refer to Humphrey’s book.

Little of the evidence is in literary form; most surviving observations are from moralists whose chief concern was the effect of the races on the spectators. The best actual narrative of a race is from the fifth-century poet Sidonius Apollinaris (see Appendix). His gripping play-by-play commentary on a four-team race conveys wonderfully the atmosphere of a hippodrome, probably the Circus Maximus itself.[2] He is also informative about the posture of the charioteers, the way teams cooperated, and the rules of fair play, in particular that it was legal to crowd another chariot if not actually to bump it. His description of a wreck resulting from such a maneuver is gruesome, suggesting a great many limbs broken if not actually twisted in the spokes as he describes.[3] The sport was undoubtedly harder on horses than on men.

Inevitably, better representations in the form of mosaics, reliefs, lamps, and other decorative art survive from the late Roman period than from the republic and early empire. The following discussion should be considered relevant chiefly to racing in the Circus Maximus during the fourth and fifth centuries.

The chariots

It is unfortunate that the popular idea of the racing chariot has derived from the one driven by Ben Hur. There would have been no more reason to enter such a heavy, elaborately decorated vehicle in a race than to put a ’58 Oldsmobile in a road rally.

Racing models?

Surviving figurines and other representations show that the typical racing chariot was more like a basket on wheels. The driver stood on webbing that gave him a good, springy foothold. He is sometimes shown (as in fig. 119) leaning back on the reins wrapped around his waist as he plants his feet on the dashboard—an apron of leather, canvas, or basketwork stretched on a hoop frame (best shown in fig. 114), designed to catch the sand flung up by the yoke horses. The driver could also brace a knee against the dashboard or hoop as he leaned forward (fig. 116).

Even allowing for the artists’ need to compress space, it is striking how close the drivers are to the horses. Sidonius speaks of them leaning almost prone over the pole to lash at the horses’ withers with their short whips, leaving the rumps and backs unscathed.

We can certainly dismiss as fiction, or even movie blooper, the idea of whirling blades extended from the hubs to chew up the opponents’ spokes. Both chariots would surely be involved in calamity the instant any projection, rotating or not, came between the spokes of an opponent’s wheel.

The sparsores

Some ancient circus scenes show figures on foot inside the arena, and in many cases these appear to be boys or men carrying a vessel in one hand. The vessel is shown in various forms: most often as a double-handled amphora, but sometimes as a shallow bowl (figs. 36, 59, 78), as a cone with one or more handles (figs. 97, 110, 115, 116), and as a narrow-mouthed jug, either moulded with depressions to give purchase to the fingers (fig. 101), or enclosed in a basket with a wicker handle above the neck (fig. 100).

Humphrey rightly rejects the notion that these sparsores or sprinklers (if they are to be identified with the attendants so called on monuments) are watering the track. He thinks it “conceivable” that they are lubricating the wheels of passing chariots, and Fik Meijer, following M. Junkelmann, also allows the possibility that they are throwing water over the axles to cool them.[4] But I find it very difficult to conceive how water or oil could be effectively splashed over the axle of a chariot speeding past, and even if it could, it would tend to carry flying dust into the hub, only exacerbating the friction. Nor does the art suggest that such an operation was taking place.

Humphrey prefers to think that the sparsores are wetting the nostrils or faces of the horses, and this does seem a more realistic possibility. But to what purpose? A few drops of water or even the entire contents of a jar are not going to cool a sweating horse any more than they would an axle or wheel. But of course the Romans may have thought otherwise. Perhaps they believed that wetting the nose in particular gave the horse some relief, just as slitting the nostrils was believed to ease breathing in those days when horses were inefficiently harnessed around the windpipe. Indeed Jean-Paul Thuillier concludes, on the basis of ancient veterinary works, that a small amount of water applied to horses’ nostrils was considered effective against a cough, brought on by the heat and dust of the circus, that might lacerate the palate. (Modern racehorses can experience something called dorsal displacement of the soft palate.) St. Basil says that water was poured into the mouths of the panting horses on the track, but perhaps he misinterprets what was going on—not surprisingly in an age that could debate whether liquids were taken into the body by the trachea or the esophagus.[5]

Other possibilities are raised by a tableau in the Piazza Armerina mosaic, which shows the victorious charioteer being greeted by a trumpeter and a prize-giver, while behind him a figure with a flask at his waist raises his hand toward the driver’s head in the characteristic gesture of the sparsor.[6] Is he honoring the winner by sprinkling him with perfume? If so, are the sparsores we see elsewhere actually performing a similar function while the race is being run, by way of encouragement? One of the three sparsores in the “bird-circus” mosaic at the same villa (fig. 110) seems to be running after a team and making the same gesture at the charioteer or his vehicle. The other two figures are standing in front of teams and may be preparing to sprinkle the birds, though one’s first impression is that they are extending their right arms in a salute or what appears to modern eyes as a “go ahead” gesture.

It may be that the effect of the water (if that’s all it was) must be sought more in the magical than in the physical sphere. Magic was a large part of the culture of chariot racing, even into Christian times. Surviving leaden curse tablets show how evil forces were invoked against charioteers, who themselves might become adept in the black arts.[7] Other charms, including aspersion, were used to protect. In his Life of Hilarion, Jerome tells the following story about a certain Italicus, who was evidently the stable-master (equos nutriebat) of one of the factions:[8]

Now the rival of Italicus had in his pay a magician to incite his horses by certain demoniacal incantations, and keep back those of his opponent. Italicus therefore came to the blessed Hilarion and besought his aid not so much for the injury of his adversary as for protection for himself.... At the request therefore of the brethren who were present [Hilarion] ordered an earthenware cup out of which he was wont to drink to be filled with water and given to Italicus. The latter took it and sprinkled it over his stable and horses, his charioteers <and his chariot>, and the [bolts of the starting-gates].[9]

The crowd was in a marvellous state of excitement, for the enemy in derision had published the news of what was going to be done, and the backers of Italicus were in high spirits at the victory which they promised themselves. The signal is given; the one team flies towards the goal, the other sticks fast: the wheels are glowing hot beneath the chariot of the one, while the other scarce catches a glimpse of their opponents’ backs as they flit past. The shouts of the crowd swell to a roar, and the heathens themselves with one voice declare Marnas is conquered by Christ. After this the opponents in their rage demanded that Hilarion as a Christian magician should be dragged to execution. This decisive victory and several others which followed in successive games of the circus caused many to turn to the faith.

Apotropaic magic was certainly not considered a capital crime in the fourth century, and even the obviously malevolent incantations of the rival’s maleficus seem to have been tolerated. Yet the crowd bays for Hilarion’s blood—is it solely because he is a Christian magician? Unfortunately, the anecdote raises more questions than it answers about whether the sparsores were legally practicing a similar kind of magic.

It remains puzzling how the sprinkling was actually done. In the Lyons mosaic (fig. 36) the sparsor is holding a basin of water and is clearly prepared to fling its contents at the approaching team. But we see other figures with a flask raised in the right hand while the left hand hangs idle (fig. 115); with the right hand upraised while the left tips a cone-shaped vessel on its side (figs. 110, 116); and with the right hand gesturing toward the muzzle of a horse while the vessel is held upright in the left (fig. 107, the Silin mosaic—the figure at the center of the far turn, not clearly shown in this reproduction). In no case where the vessel is a narrow-necked amphora or bottle do we get any sense of how the liquid was dispensed, or for that matter how the vessel could be quickly refilled at the pool in the central barrier, presuming that this was necessary. (Of course, filled bottles might be stockpiled before each race.) We see no sign of a sponge or aspergillum in the free hand.

In the statue at Carthage discussed by Thuillier, the figure bears a whip in the left hand, as does a sparsor in a mosaic from the same place (fig. 63), raising the question of whether these attendants performed other duties having to do with managing the horses. Jocelyne Nelis-Clément suggests that they were responsible for whipping up the teams or slowing them down (“de stimuler ou de freiner l’élan des chevaux, aux virages et à la fin de la course”). I very much doubt that the charioteers would need or welcome such intervention during the race, but the attendant in the Carthage mosaic is standing in front of a team that is apparently being reined in, perhaps after completing the course or dropping out, unless it is actually being held back by the driver so that the sparsor can do a proper job.

Whatever the sparsores were doing, it must have been considered a benefit outweighing possible distraction of the horses and the danger to both chariots and sparsores. Fig. 120, the Gerona mosaic, shows a trace horse rearing at a sparsor, and several mosaics and sarcophagus reliefs show unhelmeted figures in desperate situations under the hooves of onrushing horses, their vessels lying abandoned on the track (e.g. figs. 97-100, 102, 103).

This fragmentary relief in the Berlin State Museum (reunited with the rest of the panel in Humphrey's fig. 102) is sometimes said to show a fallen charioteer, but note the amphora on the ground, and the fact that the prone figure is unhelmeted. Another sparsor is seen on the far side of the track. The seven eggs at this end of the spina have all been lowered, indicating that this is the final lap. (Photo by courtesy of Mark Watson.)

Despite the lack of literary references, the sparsores seem to have been an important element in the culture of the racetrack. I am inclined to accept Thuillier’s conclusion that their dangerous work was regarded as essential to the health of the horses, and that a skilled sparsor might become a celebrity himself, as evidenced by the Carthage statue.

The riders

The sparsores are not the only mysterious figures commonly portrayed in circus scenes. We frequently see one or more figures on horseback. There is a particularly striking example in fig. 80, a Campana plaque in the British Museum (shown below), where a horseman dressed like a charioteer disappears behind the turning post. In most other representations these riders lack the helmet and vest. Often they raise a hand, palm up, in what is taken as exhortation; the link has therefore been made between the riders and the hortatores or iubilatores mentioned as faction attendants in inscriptions.[10]

Campana plaque at the British Museum. The driver appears to have the reins wrapped around his waist, but the lines on his upper torso, like those on the rider, may represent a protective garment of some type, perhaps a sort of padded vest. Such a garment, clasped up the front, is worn by the drivers and attendants in Humphrey’s fig. 98, a sarcophagus relief from Aquino.[11]

Since the artistic representations invariably show only a sampling of the many figures on the course, it is not clear how many outriders were present. There are always fewer riders than chariots, except on some sarcophagi where each chariot has an accompanying rider for compositional reasons. If the riders belonged to the factions, probably there were four of them in all.[12]

As with the sparsores, we have no literary information about the function of these riders. There is no reason to believe that they were contestants teamed up with chariots, like the outriders in the chuckwagon races performed at the Calgary Stampede and other rodeos, who have to cross the finish line soon after their wagons in order to avoid time penalties.[13] Most likely they filled a role similar to that of sideline coaches in modern sport. Presumably they had some system to coordinate the teams of a faction in setting the pace, blocking, and whatever else was necessary to bring about a win by one of them.[14]

As for their whipping or otherwise encouraging the team horses, the art does occasionally suggest this possibility if we keep in mind the impracticality of portraying yet another horse side by side with the team. In the Silin mosaic (fig. 107), the rider in the race scene is just in front of a team and has an arm stretched back; the perspective is awkward, and it is difficult to say if he is meant to be touching the horses with his whip, or simply gesturing to the driver. But we also see riders looking forward while galloping in front of a team (fig. 78), standing near the second turn looking back (Piazza Armerina mosaic, figs. 112 and 116), leading a team on a clockwise victory lap (fig. 63, shown below), and moving alone in the same direction (figs. 65 and 121). The overall impression is that they had no obligation to keep up with a particular chariot or chariots, but might wait at critical points or even gallop back to pick up their teams on the next lap.

Mosaic from Carthage, also shown in Humphrey, fig. 63. The charioteer at the upper right bears the victory palm and is accompanied by a rider. We see a sparsor bearing an amphora and whip, and the feet of another figure who may be a sparsor or a herald. (Pascal Radigue photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

It is just possible that the outriders are referees rather than competitors. But I think the prominence the mounted figures are given in circus scenes argues against this interpretation. Consider the vignette on the Campana plaque, where the rider in charioteer’s garb is galloping dramatically out of view. You could argue that he is a referee wearing standard safety gear, but it seems most unlikely that an artist would conceive this startling three-dimensional effect just to show the back of an ump.

Finally, Cassiodorus, writing in the sixth century, speaks of equi desultorii carrying officials who would announce the next race. In classical times, an equus desultorius bore a desultor, a “leaper,” and unless the term had lost its original meaning (as H.A. Harris suggests), we can perhaps imagine special heralds entertaining the crowd between races with trick riding while calling out the names of the next competitors. But the mounted figures we see in the art (with the possible exception of the rider on the far side of the barrier in figs. 65 and 121, who is moving in a clockwise direction with his hand raised) do not appear to be playing any such role and in most cases are clearly involved in the race itself.[15]

Tools on the track

A small number of circus representations depict an implement that resembles an ax or mattock.[16]

Sarcophagus in the Vatican museums (right side of the relief; fig. 97 in Humphrey shows the left side but only the handle of the implement).

The few writers who have taken note of these images have suggested that the tool, if that’s what it is, was used in track maintenance. It seems unlikely, however, that a tool used for routine upkeep of the track would be included in a scene of thrilling action. If the object is indeed an ax of some kind, it might instead be a piece of rescue gear, used to cut free an entangled charioteer, to separate the chariot from the team so that the track could be cleared, and to dispatch injured horses.

The British Museum curator’s comments for the relief shown in Humphrey’s fig. 103 point out “an overturned basket, which held sand for scattering on the track.” As far as I know, this is the only occurrence of such an object in the surviving art. If the Museum’s interpretation is correct, it suggests that the top layer of the track was patched up during races, probably at some risk to those doing the work. It also raises the possibility that the aforementioned tool is a rake of some kind, although the shape does not suggest such an identification.

Whatever these objects are, their inclusion in the iconography was surely meant to evoke aspects of the danger and excitement of the race.

Charioteers and the law

The professional careers of famous drivers are well documented, chiefly on their monuments.[17] Less is understood about their social and legal standing. As entertainers they were of course infames, low-caste; some of them may have been slaves, and in any case they were bound to their profession, like most Late Romans. At the same time, they were celebrities, pictured on billboards all over the city,[18] and they mixed freely with the more raffish aristocrats.

It is clear from the surviving histories and laws that charioteers were of special concern to the authorities. For instance, the shortage of charioteers and good horses led to regulation of their movements from town to town.[19]

On the other hand, their popularity gave them a certain immunity. In 366 the arrest of the charioteer Philoromus sparked a riot against the prefect of Rome that had to be sternly suppressed.[20] Similar demonstrations in 390 over the detention of a popular driver on a morals charge led ultimately to the massacre of 7,000 Thessalonicans (young men from every family, rounded up inside the local stadium, in a chillingly modern scene). The incident had tremendous consequences: for the first time an emperor humbled himself before a bishop in penance for an official act. We can be sure that succeeding rulers did their best to avoid prosecuting charioteers.

The special treatment expected by charioteers would seem to date back to at least 381, when it was decreed: “Upon those men who perform compulsory public service as punishment shall be inflicted except [their services at] the games in the circus” (eos qui agitandi munus exercent illustris auctoritas tua nullis praeter circense certamen adfici noverit oportere suppliciis). Pharr’s translation suggests that they were already in a sort of penal servitude and were therefore exempt from further punishment. However, it beggars belief that any class of people, let alone underworld figures, should be given open license to rob, rape, and kill. It has therefore been suggested that praeter be taken not as “except” but as “in front of” (praeter oculos, “before their very eyes,” is cited by the Oxford Latin Dictionary) or be emended to propter, which can mean “near” or “hard by.” Thus the law would mean that no (capital) punishment was to be dealt out to charioteers at the circus games themselves, doubtless to avoid provoking riots. Another meaning of propter is “on account of,” giving a reading something like “no punishment shall be inflicted on account of [their services at] the circus games.” As public figures with many enemies, charioteers were no doubt often exposed to frivolous charges arising from their behavior in the circus and among the factions. Perhaps the intention was to grant them immunity from this sort of thing.[21]

Two surviving laws seem to have been prompted by cases of which we know nothing. A decree of 403 forbids breadmakers to escape their profession by marrying persons of the stage or charioteers, even with the best wishes of the bakers’ guild.[22] Did some handsome Blue or Green walk into a bakery and carry off their best kneader, to the applause of the rest of the shop? An even more intriguing law of 389 seems aimed at a charioteer who has got away with killing someone on the pretext that the dead man was a magician (and therefore a dangerous criminal, even a traitor). Any person suspected of magical practices, thunders the Code, must be turned over to the authorities immediately, even by a charioteer — especially by a charioteer, who otherwise might be suspected of ridding himself of a rival magician, or of silencing a partner in crime before the man could babble out names, torture being inevitable in such cases.[23]

The Reds and the Whites

Alan Cameron has shown that the Red and White colors continued to exist into the Byzantine period, despite the predominance from an early time of the Blue and Green factions. He also shows that the minor colors were always partnered with the major, usually Red with Green and White with Blue. Nothing suggests the existence of separate Red and White stables in Constantinople, though it appears that they were still separate institutions in fourth-century Rome.[24] Although the Reds and Whites seem to have had their own fans and cheering sections, outside the circus (and during acclamations within it?) their partisans would associate themselves with the Blues or Greens.

It does not seem that the Whites and Reds were a second division of less skilled and experienced teams that were expected to run in the rear; too many victories for them are recorded, and there is at least one known instance of a great driver moving from a major to a minor color.

What then was the role of the minor colors in a race? In the case of a field of four, as Sidonius shows, paired chariots would cooperate but anyone might expect to win. In larger races the arrangement is necessarily more complicated. Take the race of twelve chariots, three from each color. Two of these must be considered second and third string, and their primary job is to work for the victory of the first team. Is there a similar commonality of interest between partner colors?

 It is sheer guesswork, but I think that the White and Red colors, though fielded by the Blue and Green factions, must have regarded themselves as independents in at least the bigger races. Even if cooperation had been desirable, coordination between two sides of three chariots could hardly have gone beyond not making allies primary targets for the sort of attack described by Sidonius.

The capacity of the Circus Maximus

In the first century CE, the encyclopedist Pliny the Elder wrote that the Circus Maximus could accommodate 250,000 spectators, and later sources give the number of loca (whatever the measure of a locus might be) as up to 485,000. Humphrey (p. 126) rightly discounted these large numbers and estimated the seating capacity in the early third century as 150,000, based on the dimensions of the structure as he understood them.

More recently, however, a team at the Ausonius Institute in France has created a digital model of the fourth-century Circus, which has enabled more precise calculations. Using Humphrey’s figure of 40 cm for the width of each place and assuming 35 rows (the exact number is not known), they arrive at a figure of 99,019. Given the uncertainty of the parameters, however, they commit themselves only to a range of 60,000 to 100,000—in any case, far less than previously thought, even if still comparable to the capacity of the largest modern stadiums.[25]

Claques in the circus?

Fik Meijer (Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire, pp. 133-4) makes a surprising argument that paid clappers were introduced into the circus in the fourth century, and that they were instrumental in “radicalizing” the factions. His sole evidence appears to be a brief and somewhat murky passage of Ammianus Marcellinus.

Before looking at the text he cites, we should question whether claqueurs would have had any useful role in the circus. We know that they plied their trade in the theaters, just as they have done in modern times. The role of a claque is to advance the apparent popularity of its employers by inciting the audience to applaud for them and jeer at their rivals. In the Roman empire, where theatrical performances were often competitive, the claques would be trying to influence the judges as well. But in chariot-racing, victory and fame are entirely dependent on objective results. Competitors are performing simultaneously amidst a general roar, and paid applause would serve no purpose. The partisans, sitting in blocks, were probably led by professional cheerleaders or prompters as they hailed the victors or engaged in formal chanting (see n. 10 below), but this is not the same as paid clapping, and there’s no reason to think that the phenomenon was new or different in the late fourth century.[26]

Although I believe Meijer puts far too much weight on it, Ammianus 28.4.33 is an interesting passage that may yield some information about the behavior of the crowds at spectacles. Here is the Latin, followed by J.C. Rolfe’s translation. Walter Hamilton omits the paragraph from his abridged translation, perhaps because of its obscurity.

Id enim nunc repertum est pro sonitu laudum impensiore per applicatos homines ad plaudendum, ut in omni spectaculo, exodiario, venatori, aurigae et histrionum generi omni, et iudicibus celsis, itidemque minoribus, nec non etiam matronis, clametur assidue: "Per te illi discant"; quid autem debeat disci, nemo sufficit explanare.

And it has now come to this, that in place of the lively sound of approval from men appointed to applaud, at every public show an actor of afterpieces, a beast-baiter, a charioteer, every kind of player, and the magistrates of higher and lower rank, nay even matrons, are greeted with the shout “You should be these fellows’ teachers!”; but what they ought to learn no one is able to explain.

The observation is part of a wide-ranging satire on Roman society. The sense seems to be that instead of the usual lavish (impensior) applause, the audiences at various spectacles now single out victorious athletes and performers and shout a slogan at them: literally “Let those people learn from you,” or, as we might say, “That’ll teach ’em!” The magistrates (iudices) are perhaps to be understood as the judges of theatrical performances, being praised for their decisions; or (if they are not the same people) the officials—governors, quaestors, and so on—who have sponsored the games, and who are required by law to attend them. The matrons are presumably these men’s wives.

What of the applicatos homines ad plaudendum? The words can be taken as “men tasked with applauding” or “men devoted to applauding”;  that is to say, the men may be claqueurs, or they may simply be noisy partisans. The distinction is not important, because Ammianus is not disparaging them as a group, but only contrasting normal applause with rude and nonsensical shouting. In any case, I don’t think their incidental appearance in connection with comic actors, charioteers, animal-hunters, and other players can be taken as evidence that paid clappers performed any role in the circus, let alone that they now had some sinister influence in whipping up and even enforcing partisan fury, as Meijer alleges.

Appendix: Sidonius’s account of a race

The following translation of lines 304-27 of Poem 23 is from W.B. Anderson’s Loeb edition of 1936. I have omitted Anderson’s notes, which can be found together with the Latin text in a rather messy OCR transcription here. The poem is addressed to Sidonius’s friend and fellow poet Consentius. Alan Cameron calls this “perhaps the liveliest and most successful passage in the whole of Sidonius’ dreary œuvre.”

Humphrey (p. 156) deprecates the value of the passage for our understanding of Roman races because the subject is “Greek games.” He perhaps bases this statement on the fact that it is an amateur contest, on the reference to the field of Elis (the site of the first Olympic games), and on the fact that the contestants are assigned to chariots, which would surely not have been the case in professional races.

Nay, it was rather the duty of my Muse to record with joy your own great exploits when you were conqueror at the circensian games amid the thunderous plaudits of Rome.

Phoebus was beginning a new yearly circle, and two-faced Janus was bringing back his Calends, the day when the new magistrates take their seats. It is Caesar’s custom to provide games (called “private”) twice in that one day. Then a company of young men, all of the Court, goes through a grim mimicry of the field of Elis with four-horse chariots racing over the course.

Now the urn demanded you[27] and the whistling cheers of the hoarse onlookers summoned you. Thereupon, in the part where the door is and the seat of the consuls, round which there runs a wall with six vaulted chambers on each side, wherein are the starting-pens, you chose one of the four chariots by lot and mounted it, laying a tight grip on the hanging reins. Your partner did the same, so did the opposing side. Brightly gleam the colours, white and blue, green and red, your several badges.

Servants’ hands hold mouth and reins and with knotted cords force the twisted manes to hide themselves, and all the while they incite the steeds, eagerly cheering them with encouraging pats and instilling a rapturous frenzy. There behind the barriers chafe those beasts, pressing against the fastenings, while a vapoury blast comes forth between the wooden bars and even before the race the field they have not yet entered is filled with their panting breath. They push, they bustle, they drag, they struggle, they rage, they jump, they fear and are feared; never are their feet still, but restlessly they lash the hardened timber.

At last the herald with loud blare of trumpet calls forth the impatient teams and launches the fleet chariots into the field. The swoop of forked lightning, the arrow sped by Scythian string, the trail of the swiftly-falling star, the leaden hurricane of bullets whirled from Balearic slings has never so rapidly split the airy paths of the sky. The ground gives way under the wheels and the air is smirched with the dust that rises in their track. The drivers, while they wield the reins, ply the lash; now they stretch forward over the chariots with stooping breasts, and so they sweep along, striking the horses’ withers and leaving their backs untouched. With charioteers so prone it would puzzle you to pronounce whether they were more supported by the pole or by the wheels.

Now as if flying out of sight on wings, you had traversed the more open part, and you were hemmed in by the space that is cramped by craft, amid which the central barrier has extended its long low double-walled structure. When the farther turning-post freed you all from restraint once more, your partner went ahead of the two others, who had passed you; so then, according to the law of the circling course, you had to take the fourth track. The drivers in the middle were intent that if haply the first man, embarrassed by a dash of his steeds too much to the right, should leave a space open on the left by heading for the surrounding seats, he should be passed by a chariot driven in on the near side. As for you, bending double with the very force of the effort you keep a tight rein on your team and with consummate skill wisely reserve them for the seventh lap. The others are busy with hand and voice, and everywhere the sweat of drivers and flying steeds falls in drops on to the field. The hoarse roar from applauding partisans stirs the heart, and the contestants, both horses and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear.

Thus they go once round, then a second time; thus goes the third lap, thus the fourth; but in the fifth turn the foremost man, unable to bear the pressure of his pursuers, swerved his car aside, for he had found, as he gave conmand to his fleet team, that their strength was exhausted. Now the return half of the sixth course was completed and the crowd was already clamouring for the award of the prizes; your adversaries, with no fear of any effort from you, were scouring the track in front with never a care, when suddenly you tautened the curbs all together, tautened your chest, planted your feet firmly in front, and chafed the mouths of your swift steeds as fiercely as was the wont of that famed charioteer of old when he swept Oenomaus along with him and all Pisa trembled. Hereupon one of the others, clinging to the shortest route round the turning-post, was hustled by you, and his team, carried away beyond control by their onward rush, could no more be wheeled round in a harmonious course. As you saw him pass before you in disorder, you got ahead of him by remaining where you were, cunningly reining up.

The other adversary, exulting in the public plaudits, ran too far to the right, close to the spectators; then as he turned aslant and all too late after long indifference urged his horses with the whip, you sped straight past your swerving rival. Then the enemy in reckless haste overtook you and, fondly thinking that the first man had already gone ahead, shamelessly made for your wheel with a sidelong dash. His horses were brought down, a multitude of intruding legs entered the wheels, and the twelve spokes were crowded, until a crackle came from those crammed spaces and the revolving rim shattered the entangled feet; then he, a fifth victim, flung from his chariot, which fell upon him, caused a mountain of manifold havoc, and blood disfigured his prostrate brow.

Thereupon arose a riot of renewed shouting such as neither Lycaeus with its cypresses ever raises, nor the forests of Ossa, troubled though they be by many a hurricane; such echoing roar as not even the Siciilian sea, rolled onward in billows by the south wind, gives forth, nor Propontis, whose wild deeps are a rampart to the Bosphorus. Next the just emperor ordered silken ribands to be added to the victors’ palms and crowns to the necklets of gold, and true merit to have its reward; while to the vanquished in their sore disgrace he bade rugs of many-coloured hair to be awarded.


[1] A good if somewhat dated general view is given by H.A. Harris in his Sport in Greece and Rome (1972). (Harris is mistaken in placing the finishing-line at the near turning-post [p. 189]; see Humphrey pp. 85 ff.) The only book-length survey, Fik Meijer’s Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire (2010), is a somewhat unfocused (and poorly illustrated) popular treatment that contains some good information mixed with unwarranted generalizations and assumptions. Online resources come and go; when I last checked, Robert Cole’s had many good photographs and reconstructions.

A symposium published in 2006 as Le cirque romain et son image, reviewed in French here, contains diverse and well-illustrated studies in several languages. Of particular value for the races themselves is Fabricia Fauquet’s contribution, “Le fonctionnement du cirque romain: Déroulement d’une course de chars” (pp. 261 ff.).

The fullest examination of the sparsores is perhaps that by Jean-Paul Thuillier, Agitator ou Sparsor: À propos d’une célèbre statue de Carthage” (1999), with several important images not found in Humphrey; but note that his fig. 2 has been flipped in publication, so that the amphora and whip have changed hands. Jocelyne Nelis-Clément discusses the sparsores and the riders in “Les métiers du cirque, de Rome à Byzance: Entre texte et image” (2002), pp. 278 ff.

Alan Cameron’s Porphyrius the Charioteer (1973) is a scholarly study of the epigrams dedicated to that great Byzantine driver and contains a great deal of untranslated Greek; nonetheless it is a mine of incidental information.

[2] The Loeb editor, W.B. Anderson, states that intonante Roma at line 305 is not to be taken literally, and he places the action at Ravenna, “where Valentinian III resided.” He has been followed in this by most subsequent commentators. However, Valentinian certainly spent time in Rome (many of his laws were issued from the city, and he died there), and there is no good evidence for the existence of a circus at Ravenna. See D.M. Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (2010), pp. 59-60, with references.

[3] Anderson points out that Sidonius is vague about how the offending charioteer hopes to impede Consentius and how the wreck comes about. He translates hostis...tranversum venit impudens in axem as “the enemy...shamelessly made for your wheel with a sidelong dash”—but axis can also mean “chariot,” so we need not conclude that an actual clash of wheels is intended. Then immediately the enemy’s horses are thrown into disorder (incurvantur, literally “are bent” or “are made crooked”; Anderson says “were brought down”) and become entangled in the wheels of their own chariot. There does not appear to have been any collision, and indeed the maneuver may not have been much different from that successfully performed moments earlier by Consentius, who passes the other opposing chariot on a turn after the driver has been “hustled” (incitatus) by him and can no longer control his team.

[4] Humphrey, pp. 198, 276; Meijer, p. 56.

[5] Humphrey, loc. cit. (he adduces an unambiguous depiction on a terracotta, but unfortunately does not show it); Arthur Cotterell, Chariot (2005), pp. 56, 58 (slitting nostrils); Thuillier, n. 52; Basil, Letter 222; Macrobius, Saturnalia, 7.15 (human intake of water). In the Digest of Roman law, “those who sprinkle water on horses” are classed with charioteers, athletes, and dancers; see Thuillier, p. 1096. An attendant in a mosaic in Madrid (Thuillier, fig. 11) is holding the muzzle of one of the victorious horses and evidently spitting at it.

[6]  Figs. 112 and 114 in Humphrey. The sparsor is completely visible in the detail shown in Peter Connolly and Heather Dodge, The Ancient City (2000), p. 180. Note that what at first looks like a cup in the sparsor’s hand is actually a dropout in the tilework. A similar figure appears in the Madrid mosaic, but here the right hand is simply upraised in what appears to be a victory gesture. A figure with both a flask and a whip makes the same gesture toward the victorious charioteer (who in this case has switched to horseback for his victory lap) in a mosaic shown by Alan Cameron in Porphyrius the Charioteer (1973), plate 24. Cameron identifies this attendant as a hortator (p. 46), without perhaps considering the significance of the flask. For the winner riding his lead horse for the victory lap, idem pp. 44-49.

[7] On magic at the races in general, see Matthew W. Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World (2001), pp. 293-8. On curse tablets, see also Harris, pp. 235-7, and John G. Gager (ed.), Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (1999), pp. 45 ff. Such tablets have been found pierced by nails, a practice no doubt intended to increase the binding power of the defixio, but there is no basis for the suggestion in Peter Struck’s article “Greatest of All Time” (Lapham's Quarterly, Summer 2010) that these physically dangerous objects were hurled at the teams. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Struck’s light-hearted piece has become a source for Wikipedia, which (at time of writing) repeats this canard.

An example of the direct involvement of charioteers in magical practices is found in Ammianus Marcellinus, 26.3.3, where the charioteer Hilarinus is sentenced to death for having apprenticed his son to a veneficus, a poisoner or sorcerer. I am puzzled by the preceding sentence, where Ammianus says the urban prefect was regarded as cruel for spying out great crimes (i.e. sorcery) while the crowds were pouring into the circus on race days. Are the investigations actually being carried on at the circus, or is it simply that the work of the torturers went on even during holidays?

[8] From the translation by W.H. Fremantle in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. The Latin text is in the Patrologiae Cursus Completus, v. 23.

[9] stabulam, et equos, et aurigas suos, rhedam, carcerumque repagula aspersit. The editor of the text in the Patrologiae notes, “The word rhedam is lacking in all the manuscripts we have used,” but does not specify whether it is from some inferior manuscript, or his own interpolation. In any case, it doesn’t fit: rheda is a carriage (singular) rather than a chariot, and it is awkwardly paired with the final item, a part of the circus structure, rather than being listed among the items associated with Italicus. Fremantle translates carcerumque repagula as “and the barriers of the course,” but in fact the carceres are the stalls of the starting-gates. Repagula are door-bars or bolts, and by extension any bars or restraints. Italicus might be magically greasing the release mechanisms to ensure a fair start, or the word may encompass the doors themselves: cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 2.155, where the horses kick at the repagula, and Sidonius, 23.331, where they press against them. One manuscript reads carrucarumque regulas, “and the bars of the carriages” (regula can mean a rod or bar that was somehow used as a starting-gate in earlier times), but this seems to me a clumsy emendation by someone who did not understand the technical jargon.

[10] See D.S. Potter et al., Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (1999), pp. 293-4. It is also possible that the hortatores or iubilatores, or both, were posted in the stands to organize cheers and formal acclamations (chants); on the latter, see Cameron’s Circus Factions and G.S. Aldrete, Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome (1999). Sidonius speaks of attendants holding the horses in the starting-gates while they incite them (hortantur) and pat them coaxingly. Humphrey (p. 157) identifies these with the moratores (lit. “delayers”) mentioned in an inscription, but could they actually be the hortatores?

[11] Compare the (greatly restored) statue of a victorious charioteer at the Vatican, where the chest and midriff are bound by interwoven straps, which must be an extension of the reins. The knife blade is hooked around a strap, which would make it difficult to extricate in an emergency; perhaps the idea was to sever the strap in the act of pulling up the knife, allowing the whole thing to unravel.

[12] The Silin mosaic may suggest a greater proportion of outriders, since it shows three riders for the four chariots running on the divided part of the track. However, I believe the last stretch of the track, starting with the two standing figures identified by Humphrey (p. 213) as contending sparsores, is a separate scene that recognizes other kinds of contests (probably in the nature of half-time shows), just as the horses bursting from the starting-gates, and the victor with his palm leaf, form separate scenes. The man with sword and shield striding from the direction of the starting gates is clearly not part of the chariot race, and the same is likely true of the nearby riders, who may represent ordinary horse-racing.

The figure standing by the judges’ stand in this scene, by the way, is apparently a herald announcing a victory. Better reproductions show that he is holding three colored cloths in his left hand while holding up another in his right. No doubt his signal is being picked up by other heralds such as the one in the Barcelona mosaic (fig. 119), who is skipping about at what Humphrey (p. 237) takes to be the starting end of the circus and waving a green streamer as he looks toward the finish line and shouts the name of one of the winning horses. On these heralds, see Nelis-Clément, pp. 282 ff.

[13] Harris, p. 234.

[14] Harris (p. 195) describes how this works in modern sports.

[15] Cassiodorus, Variae 51: “equi desultorii, per quos circensium ministri missus denuntiant exituros, luciferi praecursorias velocitates imitantur.” Thomas Hodgkin translates: “The circus horses, by means of which the servants of the Circus announce the heats that are to be run, imitate the herald-swiftness of the morning star.” For classical references, see Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, s.v.Circus.” See also Harris, p. 233; Nelis-Clément, pp. 290 ff.; Jean-Paul Thuillier, “Les desultores de l’Italie antique” (1989).

[16] The British Museum description referred to below originally identified two picks in the relief. However, these are clearly the axles and wheels of the chariots facing away from the viewer, and the Museum has since made a correction. A sarcophagus relief in a private collection at Bryn Mawr is said to depict a pickax: see “Responding to the Antique. A Rediscovered Roman Circus Sarcophagus and its Renaissance Afterlife”. However, I'm not convinced that the vague shapes under the left-hand horse in the photographs are what the author says they are.

[17] See Alan Cameron’s Porphyrius the Charioteer; Potter et al., pp. 296-9; Meijer, chapters 6 and 9; Harris, pp. 198-209.

[18] Codex Theodosianus 15.7.12, a law of 394 CE, regulates where such images may be shown; it is considered sacrilege to display them alongside portraits of the emperors.

[19] C.Th. 15.5.3, applying only to “citizen charioteers.”

[20] Ammianus Marcellinus, 15.7.

[21] C.Th. 15.7.7. Praeter is retained in the Codex Justinianus 11.41.3; Blume, with reservation, translates the passage “will not inflict any punishment upon chariot drivers in sight of (the people viewing) the games in the circus.” See also D.S. Potter, The Victor’s Crown (2011), pp. 315-6 with note.

[22] C.Th. 14.3.21. According to the church historian Socrates (5.18), the large bakeries had become dens of thieves with taverns attached, where visitors were apt to be shanghaied for work as bakers and prostitutes.

[23] C.Th. 9.16.11.

[24] Cameron, Circus Factions, p. 71; L. Richardson, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1992), s.v. “Stabula IIII Factionum.” (Richardson’s account of the four factions is mistaken; he seems to think that Domitian’s Purple and Gold innovations survived while the Blue and Green factions completely subsumed the White and Red.) In Rome there is archaeological evidence only for the stable of the Greens, just west of the Theater of Pompey.

[25] Robert Vergnieux, “Origine de l’usage de la Réalité Virtuelle à l’Institut Ausonius et les premiers travaux sur le Circus Maximus,” in Le cirque romain et son image, p. 240.

[26] Cameron (pp. 234 ff.) makes some of the same points in tracing the evolution of theater claques.

[27] For the drawing of lots, see Humphrey, pp. 154-6. He posits that, in professional races, drivers were picked in random order to make their selection of starting-gates. In this case, it seems that Consentius is chosen for a particular race when his number comes up, and is assigned a starting-gate and team by lot as well.